A common lament amongst music fans is that certain albums would be greatly improved if only the artist had cut certain songs from the tracklist. But Vacation – the debut full-length from Melbourne-based indie-rock duo Big Scary – marks the most striking occurrence in recent memory for which the distinction between the band’s worthwhile and sub-par tracks is so staggeringly clear.
To this curious end, Vacation is spread over two halves. The first indulges many of the pretenses for which some people dismiss indie rock: half-baked noodling in the name of experimentation; painfully ironic lyrics; pieces that flirt with sonic material culled from a vast array of sources, including touchstones as disparate as Britpop, African guitar-pop, and Americana-influenced nu-folk. In marked contrast, when Big Scary tones things down on the second half they offer their best songs yet.
As their promising 2010 EP At the Mercy of the Elements illustrated, Big Scary consists of two clearly intelligent musicians (singer/guitarist Tom Iansek and drummer Jo Syme) and when they take the extra time to structure their good ideas and censor their bad ones, their music comes out creative, compelling and often stunningly catchy.
Unfortunately, on Vacation*, it seems that the band only play to their strengths occasionally. Compare the overly flashy ?Purple?, which sounds like a pressing from the same post-punk revival mould used by Franz Ferdinand circa-2004, with the upbeat and clever ?Falling Away?; a re-recording from the *Autumn EP during which Syme’s jumpy hi-hat swish is pushed way back in the mix, making room for the arching drama of Iansek’s perfectly shaky, bittersweet delivery.
Equally great is the wistful, autumnal shyness of minimalist folk rock tune ?Bad Friends? which establishes an extraordinary intimacy and saves the song’s best hook for the last minute, the climax to a build you didn’t even know was happening. Deadpan lines like, ?My friends are all getting drunk somewhere without me? work brilliantly here, stringing out a fantastic lyrical/musical tension that felt so clumsily and obviously executed on the first five tracks.
Iansek is still dead-on during ?Got It, Lost It?, but with an even more curious rubato for his introductory remarks: ?There’s hurt inside my head/Nothing can keep you/Throw it back instead.? What follows is a thick but wispy vocal chorus of disembodied, barely decipherable harmonising that forms the waterfall backdrop for the song’s anthemic line, ?It’s in the heart/It’s in the head?, which provides one of the record’s biggest and best hooks.
Maybe there’s a point to Vacation’s disparity, or some subtle concept behind it that remains elusive. And though Big Scary should be praised for attempting to bring these disparate sounds together, they would fare better by letting their decorative elements serve their ideal function – as colourful embellishment – rather than using them to carry their sub-par tracks.